The Search for a Hawai‘i Icon: The Manapua Man
The manapua man holds a special place in the hearts, and stomachs, of local residents.
This story originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of our sister publication, HAWAI‘I Magazine.
UNCLE MIKE THROWS UP A DOUBLE SHAKA.
Photos: Aaron K. Yoshino
I glance at my hastily scribbled directions and drive back down the road I came from.
I was told there’s a manapua man in Pearl City, but without a proper address, all I can surmise is that he’s on the corner of Moanalua Road and Ho‘olaule‘a Street, under a bridge.
The search begins.
After taking a few more wrong turns through a quiet residential neighborhood, I head down Ho‘olaule‘a and pass a school on my right, then my eyes widen. A white van sits under a large overpass and I catch a glance of its makeshift menu: $2 fried noodles, 50-cent pork hash and an assortment of candies, all in a plexiglass case. I’ve found the manapua man. He’s the first one I’ve seen in over a decade.
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Fried noodles are a must-have.
The manapua man of my youth, Mr. Lee, never smiled and always parked underneath a large papaya tree across the street from Waialua Public Library on the North Shore. He was known for selling snacks, soft drinks and local comfort foods, such as thick, chewy fried noodles that’ll stick to your ribs; steaming hot balls of minced pork called pork hash, which are placed inside a dumpling wrapper; and, of course, manapua, the tasty steamed buns filled with succulent char siu pork. While it may sound like just another food truck, Mr. Lee and many of the manapua men and women who roamed residential neighborhoods in Hawai‘i set themselves apart by selling all of this at a price even kids with a few bucks could afford.
The Pearl City manapua man’s truck sits under a large bridge.
Arnold Hiura, author of Kau Kau: Cuisine & Culture in the Hawaiian Islands, believes that the manapua man is a culinary hybrid of the traveling salesmen archetype and the mom-and-pop shops of old.
“For where we grew up, people used to go to the mom and pop store after school; they used to have ice cakes and sour lemons and a variety of snacks,” says Hiura, “and I think the modern-day manapua man, who travels inside of his truck, is kind of a hybrid. They have the Chinese-inspired food, like manapua and pork hash, with candies and cold drinks and whatever else they had.”
A strawberry soda and spam musubi.
And although the origin of the name, manapua man, is hard to tie down, some propose that it came from the original manapua men, Chinese laborers from Hawai‘i’s sugar plantation era who would carry cans, slung over their shoulders on a bamboo pole, filled with manapua, which they would sell for additional income.
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Locals on the west side crowd around the manapua man’s wares.
Regardless of how the manapua man came to be, Mr. Lee was always my first stop after class. Nudging and bumping my way through the mob of other kids, I’d always order the same meal: a bag of fried noodles, which came in a literal plastic bag, two pork hash and a grape soda, all of which totaled $3.50. It might be the nostalgia speaking, but I can clearly remember this being the best thing I ever ate as a child.
The ‘Ewa manapua man doesn’t let the heat get to him.
HONOLULU Magazine’s Fast Facts
What we think of as manapua is mostly a variation of what other communities call char siu bao, a bun filled with meat or a type of dim sum.
The name game?
Our Hawaiian name derives from mea ‘ono pua‘a or Chinese pork cake.
The modern manapua man
For the last several decades, the “manapua man” in Hawai‘i has more often been a van that drives around near schools and other gathering places, selling manapua, fried noodles and rice cakes for bargain prices to generations of hungry local residents of all ages. Kind of like an ice cream truck, and ice cream is sometimes sold.
Modern manapua makers have diversified and flavors now include chicken curry, sweet potato, lup cheong and even pizza.